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Three Powerful Help Authoring Tools


Providing help is a vital part of software development. A well-written help file makes a huge difference in how a user feels about your software.  Good help makes you look professional and user-focused.  Poor help files can make your program seem amateurish.  Of course, a good user guide or manual makes learning anything easier.

In this article I'm going to compare three help authoring tools: Help & Manual, HelpNDoc, and WinCHM. All three share the same basic features.  All three have an HTML editor that can create tables of contents and indexes. Each can compile standalone help files and web help. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. The differences between the programs are fascinating and show that their developers started their projects with very different ideas.

Help & Manual is a "big gun" in the help authoring business.  The developers have tried hard to include every feature that will be useful to any documentation author.  It creates your final documentation in almost any form you might want:  HTML Help (CHM file), Web Help, PDF files, Microsoft Word, and a proprietary ebook format.  The built-in editor makes it quite easy to generate the content of your user documents.  The user interface uses the new "Ribbon"design from the latest Microsoft Office, instead of having the familiar pull-down menus at the top of the window.

Figure 1: Help & Manual User Interface

I found Help & Manual to be quite easy to learn and use, and very fast on both Windows XP and Windows Vista systems.  There is extensive support for templates, making it easy to standardize the look of documentation.  One very useful feature is built-in support for translation, allowing you to generate multi-lingual documentation easily.  Support for command-line operation also lets you script the process of creating documents in the required formats.

Help & Manual can import help files created by other programs, which makes it easy to switch from another product to this one.  However, an experienced help author will notice a few features missing.  Because this product stores projects as XML rather than HTML files, there is no support for CSS. If you have been using a stylesheet to control the appearance of your documents, you will have to recreate the same look using the Help & Manual templates.  Also, if you have been using HTML tags like <H2> and <H3> you will need to redefine these in Help & Manual after importing your Help files, then reformat them all to use these tags.  If you're willing to invest a bit of effort in learning its features and converting existing projects, this is a powerful and very useful program.

HelpNDoc is a very well-designed program.  It's a fine choice for someone who is starting as a Help author for the first time.  The Table of Contents editor is extremely intuitive and easy to use. HelpNDoc includes a complete word processor/HTML editor that makes it simple to create content pages. A single HelpNDoc project can be compiled to a Windows Help file (CHM), a PDF, a Word document, and an HTML web help document in a single operation.  A very useful feature is the ability to link external documents to your Help project.  For instance, you can say that the topic "Frequently Asked Questions" is a Word document stored on your file server. This makes it easy to collaborate with other people on a Help project. Each person can work on their own documents, and HelpNDoc automatically combines them all into the final documentation.  Like Help & Manual, it has a powerful command-line interface.  This is the only product I reviewed that has code generators for development environments like C++ and Delphi, making it easier for developers to incorporate help files into their own final products.

Figure 2: HelpNDoc

There are some areas where HelpNDoc falls short.  It has no ability to import help files or projects from any other format.  You must completely re-create any existing help files from scratch in HelpNDoc when migrating.  Also, there is no built-in support for templates.  Because of this, there is no way to automatically enforce a standard appearance for all the pages in your project.

WinCHM has a clean, simple interface. I found this the easiest program to learn to use.  Of the three products reviewed, WinCHM has the best support for importing existing help files, which is important if you are thinking of changing editors.  Their page editor is also simple and easy to understand.  Of the three, it is the most like the free HTML Help Editor from Microsoft, so it will seem familiar if you have used that program.


Figure 3: WinCHM

After using several programs in this category, I got the distinct feeling that the WinCHM authors deliberately left out some features to keep their product as simple as possible.  This software is a good choice for relatively smaller projects which don't require the advanced features supplied by some other products.  It's also an excellent upgrade for documentation authors who have been using HTML Help Workshop, because the migration will be simple.

Which help authoring tool is right for you?  If you produce help files in multiple languages, you should definitely evaluate Help & Manual.  It is the most expensive of the three, and also extremely powerful and capable. HelpNDoc is a fine tool, especially if you don't have existing help documentation to maintain. WinCHM is definitely the easiest to learn and you can be productive very quickly, and it's a good choice if you are migrating from the HTML Help Workshop.  Of course, the beauty of shareware from FindApp is that you can download all three and see which one is best for you!

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